My initial experience of art came by way of the surrealist artist Salvador Dali. Aged just eleven, I was indoctrinated into the world of institutional life via a lengthy stint in an approved school. That old Victorian convent was to be my reluctant place of abode till I was sixteen. With its high ceilings and gloomy long passageways it was a frighteningly imposing building. The kind of edifice designed to oppress and assert its will upon you and quite capable of leaving a person feeling both inferior and chastised simultaneously.
It was before one of those thick cold stone walls, I stood transfixed on my first day there. Displayed in front of me was the strangest image I’d ever seen, a huge painting of swans upon a weird looking swampy lake yet their reflection in the water was that of elephants. It was by Salvador Dali and titled ‘Swans Reflecting Elephants’, truly odd indeed. Whilst preoccupied with my attempt to understand the two separate feelings of fascination and disquiet that this image evoked within me I failed to hear the approaching footsteps, more importantly I also failed to avoid the accompanying slap to my ear hole.
Amid the searing pain, tinnitus and innate anger raging within me I was completely incapable of answering the machine gun of questions being fired at me. “What you doing boy? Where are you supposed to be? Who are you boy?”. A wonderful introduction to art.
Forty two years later I still associate that particular painting with the injustice of a perforated ear drum and the cruelty of a system that would punish a child for observing what’s on display. That notable incident along with many others of its ilk prevailed in instilling one characteristic in me that has been beneficial for the most part. I’m a very observant individual, I miss very little of what goes on around me.
I guess that experience with the surreal would also accompany me throughout life. My love of the quirky has always piqued my interest and given me the drive to search for something different.
I have always tried to approach my work from a position of individuality. Having spent a lot of time in isolation armed with little more than a pencil, a good eye for detail and the imagination born of bare stone walls, I’ve had to think outside the box (quite literally). My attitude to art is a fearless one of trial and error. If I don’t or can’t achieve what I’m after I absorb the learning curve and move onto something new. The ‘something new’ always fills me with a sense of excitement and nothing ever gets truly left behind.
I came to paint relatively late on in life, being colour blind, I believed it to be a hindrance for a painter so I steered clear until my late 30’s. It was whilst at a different establishment that I met another artist, and amazing painter unfortunately he was equipped with all the social skills of Chlamydia! He had the most disconcerting wild staring eyes I’d ever seen (and coming from a guy who’s spent time with some of Britain’s most seriously disturbed individuals that’s quite a statement).
Although he may not have been the most endearing of characters, he was certainly the most talented artist I’ve encountered. He worked mainly in oil (back when we were allowed that medium in the system) and like many prison artists he was extremely proficient at portraiture. Having seen many a decent portrait in my time, it holds no great appeal for me. However, his surreal paintings were something to behold. I loved his work and always found myself moved by what he produced, not that it mattered to him. I’d never met someone who had such little regard for what others thought. He painted whatever he liked and never appeared phased by even the harshest of critiques. His whole approach, demeanor and stance was accompanied by a ‘fuck em all’ attitude. I didn’t much like the guy, and to be honest I never met anyone who did.
I would often shared my work with him hoping for some kind of input, but would rarely get more than the odd grunt of acknowledgement out of him. One particular ink piece I had underway elicited more of a response. It was a huge sheet of A0 in which I’d used all kinds of black pens and liquid ink to depict my institutional journey. With his encouragement I later entered it into the Koestler Art Competition and won first prize in that category. The Koestler Arts are a charity that supports and sells artwork created by prisoners, detainees and secure patients. There are over 3,500 entries every year, I was surprised to win but it gave me a real boost to continue. It was around this time that he approached me on the landing and in as few words as is humanly possible, informed me that he’d been tasked with creating a mural in the visits hall and would I like to help. Despite him knowing I didn’t paint and I reiterated that fact. His response was direct, those wild eyes staring at me and uttered two words ‘wanna learn?’. I was instantly intrigued and as far as I could see, this was an opportunity of some merit. I would have the chance to learn from someone who clearly knew what they were doing.
A week later, we began the project that would push me into uncharted territories and send my work in a new and exciting direction. Unfortunately his tuition lasted a total of 3 days. He got into a heated argument with another con and knocked him clean out with a head butt right in front of a screw. Amid the blaring alarms and shouts of abuse they wrapped him up and carted him off to the block. I never saw him again as he was later shipped out to another jail.
So there I was, a huge painting project on my hands which spanned 3 walls and no idea of how I would complete it. It became my first real lesson in how to conquer fear. As Nike like to say ‘Just Do It’. With the basics of 3 days training under my belt and the one mantra my psychopathic scouse teacher banged home continuously, ‘under painting is the key’. He would say ‘build up your layers to allow the depth of colour to come through. Also, this way its easier to alter the painting as you go on. I don’t know what they teach in art schools and I may well have all the wrong approaches, but I do have a technique that works for me. After four months on that bloody mural I had an end result I was extremely proud of. I also had sciatica as an extra reminder! Too many hours twisted into awkward positions had trapped the nerve in my back.
Although it was a steep learning curve it was absolutely invaluable to my creative journey. The colour blindness does cause a few problems from time to time, but I find that if I keep my palette organised it’s really not the hindrance I feared it would be.
I love to paint. I find once I get into the zone its extraordinarily cathartic and offers a sense of well being unlike the destructive elements of other instant gratifications I could name.
I often have a few paintings on the go at once, as I find its useful to have work to move onto to if one is becoming a bit stale or problematic. It also keeps the momentum going as, knowing myself well at this ripe old age, I’m hard wired for stimulus and allowing the boredom to creep in is a recipe for disaster.
Mostly I paint in acrylic as its one of the few mediums the system allows us access to these days and it’s versatile and cheap. Pencil and ink are my fall back positions and I’ve recently been given the opportunity to experiment with printing which I’m finding fascinating.
During these long years of confinement, art has been my one constant companion. Without its loyalty I would hold a damn sight more of the pain and fear that shaped my life from a young age. I am no longer the product of my crime but of my creativity. I survived the past, I am thankful for the present and I now have a future.
And that’s about it for me, just a man who likes to create. I hope I get another opportunity to share again in the not so distant future as my extremely patient and wonderfully supportive partner has encouraged me to seek permission to write a blog. Fingers crossed!